Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything header image 2

Atheists Faithfully Follow the First Two or Three Commandments

August 21st, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 20 Comments

The first couple of the Ten Commandments (numbering is non-trivial, traditions differ):

You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them

(From Deuteronomy 5, NIV)

Start with a clean slate. Postulate a vague entity/idea/principle worthy of the name “God”. Do not personify the entity. (Personification is already “extra information”, we’re trying to work with the bare minimum here.) Also, rather stay away from the “God of the Philosophers”, the prime-mover original-cause idea, because a prime mover is not necessarily the meaning assigner and invokes infinite regression. (The third meh/lah post is on its way, dealing with this.) Rather define the bare-bones idea we’re working with in terms of “that idea or principle according to which humans should ideally live their lives”, in the God as “Meaning Assigner” sense.

If you conclude the idea is enigmatic, yes, that’s the whole point. Let it be an enigmatic idea that represents our enigmatic and hard to pin-down idea of what it means to live a good life. One reader concluded his concept of his God, working with these definitions, must be found in his sense of empathy and compassion. Right… With these ideas, let’s look at atheists and the Commandments…

A certain kind of “atheist” believes the idea of “God” presented by the Bible is a human creation, a development of human culture. As such, they effectively believe this idea is a “graven image”. Fundamentalists that believe in literal Biblical infallibility, for example, are actually idolising the Bible. A Greek Orthodox friend of mine recently told me that in their tradition, the Bible is not the Truth, the Bible is about the Truth, a very important distinction.

If you hold the “atheist”‘s belief about the Bible and the idea of God presented by it, then arguably the best way to most faithfully hold the first few commandments is to reject the worship of that particular notion of God, it being idolatry. The atheist’s statement “there is no God” is, after all, working with the typical monotheistic definition of “God”. An atheist is so faithfully avoiding the worship of what he or she believes are false gods, that he or she is prepared to walk a path of social/cultural persecution for it. For their faithfulness, they are persecuted.

After all, the early Christians were atheists as well.

··· Pause for dramatic effect ···

See Philip Harland’s post: Breaking news: Early Christians were impious atheists . . . (NT 3.2)“in the eyes of some angry Greeks and Romans, that is.” And that’s then the point: they were atheists according to the status quo, the surrounding Greek and Roman culture. Our contemporary atheists are the same, defined according to the surrounding Christian culture. What is an atheist anyway? Some argue the word shouldn’t even exist, being defined according to what they are not.

Cut each other some slack and see what we can learn from one another!

Categories: Worldviews
Tags: · · ·

20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Aug 22, 2008 at 11:44 am

    WOW! Divine and supernatural! Check this out, timing-wise, with regards to this blog post I made *just yesterday*! (Cectic Re: Semantics of the word Atheist)

  • 2 miller // Aug 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

    I totally saw that Cectic comic earlier, and was thinking, “Where did I just read that?”

    Most atheists (as I’m sure you’re aware) are leary of playing around too much with semantics, but I think this is one post that most will agree with. It’s sort of like the cliched “I contend that we are both atheists, but I just go one God further” trope that I’m so tired of hearing, only much less smug.

    However, I would say that if there is a reason to have “no other gods”, it’s not because the Bible said so. 😛

  • 3 Hugo // Aug 23, 2008 at 1:11 am

    You’re also tired of that clichéd trope? Yay! Join the club!

    Now with regards to the commandment, should you have “no other gods” because the Bible says so, or does the Bible say so because you should have “no other gods”? 😛

  • 4 Ben-Jammin' // Aug 23, 2008 at 1:33 am

    I think this is one post that most will agree with.

    Not me. Nor do I think many theists would agree.

  • 5 Hugo // Aug 23, 2008 at 3:06 am


    I received two responses on the Facebook-import of this post. One from a Shofarian creationist who so far expressed his dissatisfaction with two particular points, another from a Christan friend in Stellenbosch Gemeente (arguably emerging-leaning) who thanked me for the post, saying he loved it, and that he (also) feels the differences between us all are often largely semantic.

    A sample size of two aint statistically representative, but anyway.

    I’m trying to get permission to share their responses here. Now why do I care so much about privacy? I mean, granting anonymity should solve any concerns? Except the opposite concern of wanting credit for your words. I think it’s these two “opposites” that delay my sharing.

  • 6 Hugo // Aug 24, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    A positive response to this post on Facebook (it gets imported) from a friend named Jacobus, who I think also attends the church I used to attend. (I won’t any more, as I’m off to Switzerland. Maybe I’ll listen to the mp3’s of the sermons, as I really like them and think there’s something there to share with my readers.)

    Ek love dit!

    Ek voel baie ongemaklik as mense te gemaklik oor God praat. Eerstens, voel ek midnerwaardig, want ek kan nie met so baie oortuiging s^e dat God a, b of c is nie. Tweedens, is God juis, per definisie, onbepaald. Daar is mystery, onsekerheid, oopheid. Elke definisie van God verklein God.

    Stem ook saam met jou beskrywing van die geloof van ateisme. Partykeer dink ek dat die verskil tussen mense niks meer as “semantics” is nie. ‘n Ervaring van “something greater”. Ons oortuiging tot etiese gedrag. Purpose. Dit is alles dieselfde ding, al noem ons dit net iets anders.

    Tog, soos wat Einstien ge^e het: “God is in the details”. Ons woordeskat bepaal ons siening van God. En as “liefde” nie in jou woordeskat is nie, gaan jou geloof-sisteem die werklikheid ‘n baie koue, donker plek maak.

    My attempt at a translation:

    I love it!

    I feel very uncomfortable if people talk too easily about God. Firstly, I feel inferior, because I cannot say with so much conviction that God is a, b or c. Secondly, God is, after all, by definition, [undetermined/undefined/uncertain]. There is mystery, uncertainty, openness. Every definition of God [shrinks/limits/reduces] God.

    I also agree with your description of the [belief/faith] of atheism. Sometimes I think the difference between people is simply “semantics”. An experience of “something greater”. Our convictions to ethical behaviour. Purpose. It’s all the same, even if we call it something different.

    Still, as Einstein said: “God is in the details”. Our vocabulary determines our view of God. And if “love” is not in your vocabulary, your belief-system [literal translation] will make reality a very cold, dark place.

    Now I know atheists would cringe at talk about “the belief/faith of atheism” (in Afrikaans, “geloof”, I sometimes wonder if translating that to either belief or faith isn’t wrong), but I ask that you look at what he’s writing as a whole, and understand the sentiments behind his writing. He appreciates our similarities. He’s good. Atheists giving him bad beef about it would be giving atheists a bad name, at most I would suggest saying something like “Thanks! I appreciate the sentiments. However, I feel uncomfortable that you use ‘geloof’ to describe it, can you find a different word maybe?”

    Furthermore, there could be some alarm at the last paragraph, and worry as to whether it is making any implications towards atheists. I’d suggest any knee-jerk reaction to that might be irrational over-sensitivity though. First find out what he meant, then address those things with love. I’d suggest a kind of love that respects and understands beliefs being a part of who a person is, but maybe that’s just me? 😉

    All of that should serve to indicate I’m aware of the sensitivities. Please inform me if I missed something. I hope I make up for any misunderstanding I spread in the other comments I made, in discussion with two friends from Shofar (past and/or present). I will share those as soon as I feel I have implicit permission. (Explicit is harder to get, implicit should be good enough. You’ll see what I mean.)

    The other thing that irks me personally, is any abuse of Einstein’s views and metaphorical(?) use of the word “God”. I don’t feel Jacobus abused it, as his views on God are enigmatic, I just shared the following short comment and link for good measure:

    Thanks Jacobus! (While we’re at it, link sharing Re: Einstein, “Einstein & Faith” van Time Magazine:,9171,1607298-1,00.html)

    The “every definition shrinks God” thing: it’s basically saying that we shouldn’t put a somewhat “abstract” concept in a box it doesn’t belong in. Of course “evangelical” atheists don’t like this abstract approach, it gives no handle on the concept and makes it impossible to address the existence or non-existence of God. Why does that really matter? Just explain the definition of the God you don’t believe in then…?

    I also found more “respect” for Dawkins’ rhetoric due to the disclaimer he now gives about definitions of God at the start of the speeches of his that I saw recently. (Maybe they were there from his first speeches, and I just wasn’t paying enough attention to such details. His book does contain some disclaimers as well, first talking about the Einsteinian God for example. I’ll have to see what else. Anyone want a breakdown of my experiences of his book, *when I get around to it*?)

  • 7 Ben-Jammin' // Aug 25, 2008 at 7:46 am

    Of course “evangelical” atheists don’t like this abstract approach, it gives no handle on the concept and makes it impossible to address the existence or non-existence of God. Why does that really matter? Just explain the definition of the God you don’t believe in then…?

    I don’t like the idea of speaking without saying anything in general. (I can listen to politicians I like for ~four sentences, politicians I don’t like for one or two, and I haven’t heard G.W. complete a sentence in years.) I’m equal opportunity on this one – not just the word God.

    For example, I made my signature on another forum ‘Post-modernism is a fancy word for mumbling.’ You probably aren’t a big fan of that one. 🙂

    I wouldn’t jump into a disagreement with Jacobus. If I wanted to discuss it, I would use the ‘what is this word ‘God’ you are using?’ tack.

  • 8 Hugo // Sep 9, 2008 at 12:04 am

    The rest of the discussion about this post that took place on Facebook, involving two friends from Shofar, who I’ll call “Pete” and “William”:


    1) Is the statement “Fundamentalists that believe in literal Biblical infallibility, for example, are actually idolising the Bible” a factual statement, or is it simply the biased opinion of someone who doesn’t believe in the infallibility of Scripture?

    2) To say that the early Christians were atheists is to acknowledge that you missed the whole message of the gospel. Atheism says “There is no God”, a very strong statement without proof and exactly the opposite of what Christians believe.


    1) It is not a factual statement, no, it is an opinion, naturally biased by a particular world-view, one that takes the Bible as being about the truth rather than the actual truth. (E.g. the Orthodox stance.) Using the “idolatry” word is a rather strong one, of course, but I trust people will understand the context and the purpose or meaning of the post, without me having to soften the idea.

    2) To say that I missed the message of the gospel based on my post/note above, is to acknowledge that you missed the whole message of my post. Greeks and Romans called the Christians impious atheists, ’nuff said…?

    Discussions as to what atheism is or isn’t is not the point right now. (Some go by a broad definition of “atheist”, applying it to anyone that lacks a belief in the theistic definition of God.) Certain forms of Buddhism are thereby atheistic, for example. Some may say “don’t you mean agnostics/agnosticism?” – but I take that to be an epistemological position (i.e. a philosophical position with regards to what we can know and what we cannot know), while I take “atheist” to mean “not theistic”.

    Would you agree with the statement “there isn’t an old grey man with a beard sitting somewhere above the clouds”? I’m sure you would, your understanding of God is somewhat beyond that understanding, right? The idea of “embraced by God’s arms” are certainly understood metaphorically, in the sense that God doesn’t have *arms*, per se? A nuanced difference between “I don’t believe in that God” versus “I have a different understanding of God”.

    Naturally atheists lack a belief in a God that intervenes supernaturally. And they aren’t deists (deists believe in a God that set the universe in motion, but doesn’t further interfere in its workings).

    ps. Do you mind if I reproduce your comment on the original post? (I’d like to share the discussion with my non-Facebook readers.) I can also do so under a pseudonym (which many people use on blogs) or anonymously.


    Hi Hugo,

    Is die navolg van die 10 gebooie deur ‘n atheist se godskonsep nie ook afgodery weens dieselfde beginsels nie? Maw hoekom die 10 gebooie as “ground-truth”?

    Translation of William: Isn’t the following of the 10 commandments by an atheist’s god-concept also idolatry due to the same principles? In other words, why the 10 commandments as “ground truth”?


    Um… vra jy of die manier waarop hulle dit “volg”, afgodery kan wees? Nee, ek dink nie so nie? Wat verafgod hulle? Hulle volg nie die gebooie omdat dit geskrewe staan nie, hulle doen wat hulle glo reg is (wel, die soort wat ek nou van praat, jy kry verskeidenheid orals), en soos CS Lewis uitwys het ons almal ‘n sin van reg en verkeerd. Hulle steel nie want steel is verkeerd. Hulle moor nie want moord is verkeerd. En hulle glo die gebooie bevat daardie beginsels *omdat* dit verkeerd is, nie dat dit verkeerd is omdat dit in die gebooie staan nie.

    Omtrent die eerste drie, is dit ‘n gedagte wat onlangs by my opgekom het, om daardie idees/perspektiewe bietjie te konnekteer aan die beginsels van die eerste paar gebooie. Hulle sal uitwys hulle het geen god nie. My argument is nie dat hulle wel ‘n god het nie, my argument was meer net dat vanuit hul oogpunt, doen hulle die beste wat hulle kan doen, want mens-gemaakte gode glo hulle is nie iets wat mens moet aanbid nie. (Dus: “ja, daardie gode bestaan beslis, hulle is net mensgemaak”.)

    Just some food for thought…

    Translation of Hugo:

    Um… are you asking if the way they “follow” them could be idolatry? No, I don’t think so? What would they be idolising? They’re not following the commandments because “it is written”, they do what they believe is right (well, the kind I’m talking about now, you find diversity everywhere), and as CS Lewis points out, we all have a sense of right and wrong. They don’t steal because stealing is wrong. They don’t murder because murder is wrong. And they believe the commandments contain those principles *because* it are wrong, not that it is wrong because the commandments say so.

    With regards to the first three, it was an idea that recently cropped up in my mind, to connect those ideas/perspectives to the first three commandments. They would point out they don’t have a god. My argument isn’t that they do have a god, my argument was rather just that from their point of view, they’re doing the best they can, because they believe man-made gods aren’t something that should be worshipped. (Thus: “yes, those gods certainly do exist, they’re just man-made”.)

    Just some food for thought.


    Dankie William!

    Ja het gelees. So wat dink JY moet ons iemand noem wat s daar is nie ‘n god (m.a.w. skepper/wetmaker) nie?

    Mis jy nie dalk die punt wat CS Lewis probeer maak het nie? Ons almal het ‘n sin van reg en verkeerd. Maar HOEKOM het almal ‘n sin van reg en verkeerd? Is als dan nie relatief nie? Of waar kom hierdie ABSOLUTE wet vandaan?

    Translation of Pete:

    Thanks William!

    … So what do YOU think we should call someone that says there isn’t a god (in other words, a creator / lawmaker)?

    Aren’t you maybe missing the point that CS Lewis tried to make? We all have a sense of right and wrong. But WHY does everyone have a sense of right and wrong? Is it not relative? OR where does this ABSOLUTE law(/morality) come from?


    Hey Pete 🙂

    Interessante punt. Sou jy so ver gaan as om voor te stel dat enige godskonsep vanuit die bybel geinterpreteer noodwendig hierdie gebooie teenstry omdat dit intrinsiek menslik sou wees?

    Hoe kan mens hierdie prespektief versoen met/uitbrei na die gebod in hoofstuk 6?

    Translation of William:

    Hey Pete 🙂

    Interesting point. Would you go as far as to say that any god-concept interpreted out of the bible necessarily breaks these commandments because it would intrinsically be human?

    How can one reconcile/extend this perspective with/to the [covenant?] in chapter 6?


    Pete, noem hulle ateste. Hulle noem hulself dit ook. Ek het nooit ges dis verkeerde woord nie.


    Ek mis nie CS Lewis se punt nie, nee. Maar as jy probeer bewys dat God bestaan op grond van almal se sin van reg en verkeerd, dan moet jy eerstens erken almal het ‘n sin van reg en verkeerd. Insluitende mense wat nie die bron van hul sin van reg en verkeerd “personify” nie.

    Als relatief? Wel, omtrent alles “evolve”. Insluitend taal. Betekenis van woorde evolve. Menslike kultuur “evolve” ook.
    (Wat is dit in Afrikaans, evolueer?)

    Ek glo wel nie in ‘n “absolute” wet nie, ek glo in “absolute beginsels”. Meeste van die goed vloei uit ons begrip van “compassion” en “empathy” uit, d.w.s. ons moraliteit vloei uit wat ons “liefde” kan noem, m.a.w. as hy s die oorsprong van moraliteit moet “God” genoem word, dan kan jy liefde “God” noem, aka “God is liefde”.

    As jy die NG Kerk by Uniepark se wetenskapsbesprekingsgroepie bywoon, sou jy al gehoor het die basiese elemente van ons moraliteit het ge”evolve” – ander ape beskik ook oor die begin-elemente van moraliteit. Vir ‘n sosiale spesie om te bestaan, moet hulle beskik oor die basiese moraliteit om samewerking tussen lede van die groep te bevorder.


    Ek sou beslis nie so ver gaan nie. Ek werk nie in so ‘n sterk swart-en-wit wreld nie. Die punt was dat ateste glo die Bybelse godskonsep is mensgemaak. As hulle dit glo, dan is dit volgens daardie geloof “idolatry” om dit te aanbid. Julle glo dit nie, so dit is nie vir julle idolatry nie. En nou praat ek nie van relatiwisme nie, ek praat nou van ‘n tweede geloof gebaseer op ‘n eerste geloof, ‘n tweede teorie gebaseer op ‘n eerste aksioma. Of die eerste aksioma korrek of verkeerd is was nou nog nie ter sprake nie (en wil ek beslis nie nou oor debatteer nie).

    Ek glo ons godskonsep “evolve” ook, waarmee ek byvoorbeeld bedoel dat Jesus beslis ‘n groot mutasie aangebied het in ons konsep van God. Dis ‘n skuif van ‘n perspektief van ‘n God van die Ou Testament na die Christelike konsep van God.

    [ek loer gou na hoofstuk 6]

    Hmm… watter perspektief probeer jy versoen? My punt was nie dat ateste die Bybel volg nie, my punt was dat hulle gode wat hulle glo fals is, nie aanbid nie. As jy wil uitkom by die “there is no god” stelling, dan loop jy via “all gods (we know about) are false”. (Terloops, ek stel voor ‘n beter definisie van “ates” is eerder “has no belief in god”.)

    Dit beteken beslis nie ateste is immoreel nie. So as jy hulle bron van hul moraliteit God wil noem, dan is dit “empathy, compassion, the golden rule”. Ek sou stry die morele ates hou hierdie konsep van God bo alles wat hulle doen, maar sommige van hulle sal my slag as ek so “theistic language” gebruik. 😉

    Translation of Hugo:

    Pete, call them atheists. They also call themselves that. I never said it is the wrong word.


    I am not missing CS Lewis’ point, no. But if you try to prove that God exists on the grounds that everyone has a sense of right and wrong, then you must first admit that everyone has a sense of right and wrong. Including people that don’t personify the source of their sense of right and wrong.

    Everything relative? Well, just about everything “evolves”. Including language. The meaning of words evolve. Human culture also evolves.

    Actually I don’t believe in an “absolute” law, I believe in “absolute principles”. Most of the stuff flows from our sense of compassion and empathy, i.e. we can say our morality flows out of “love”, i.e. if he says the source of our morality should be called “God”, you could call love “God”, aka “God is love”.

    If you attend the Dutch Reformed church at Uniepark’s science discussion group, you’d have already heard that the basic elements of our morality “evolved”. Other apes also possess the first building blocks of morality. For a social species to exist, they must possess basic morality in order to enable cooperation between members of the group.


    I would certainly not go that far. I also don’t look at things with such a black-and-white view. The point was that atheists believe the Biblical god-concept is man-made. If they believe that, then according to that belief it would be “idolatry” to worship such a god-concept. You don’t believe it, so for you it isn’t idolatry. And I’m not talking about relativism here, I’m talking about a second belief based on a first belief, a second theory based on a first axiom. Whether the first axiom is correct or not wasn’t under consideration yet (and I certainly don’t want to debate that now).

    I believe our god-concept also “evolves”, under which I’d say, for example, that Jesus certainly offered a huge mutation of our concept of God. It’s a move from a perspective of a God of the Old Testament to the Christian concept of God.

    [I’m taking a quick look at Chapter 6.]

    Hmm… which perspective are you trying to reconcile? My point wasn’t that atheists follow the Bible, my point was just that they don’t worship gods that they believe are false. If you want to get to the “there is no god” statement, you can get there through “all gods (we know about) are false”. (By the way, I suggest a better definition of “atheist” is rather “has no belief in god”.)

    It certainly doesn’t mean atheists are immoral. So if you want to call their source of morality “God”, then their God would be “empathy, compassion, the golden rule”. I would argue that the moral atheist holds this God-concept above everything they do, though some of them would slaughter me for using “theistic language” like this. 😉

    More Hugo:

    Kom ek probeer daai ander vraag andersom: as enigeen van julle wil h ek *moenie* jul deel van die gesprek dupliseer in comments in die oorspronklike nie, laat weet my. Ek sal skuilname gebruik, vir daar handel dit slegs oor die gesprek. Verder, as julle ge”credit” wil word met jul bydrae en dus jul naam wil by h, of self ‘n pseudonym wil kies, laat weet my.

    Translation of Hugo:

    Let me try that question the other way round: if either of you want me to *not* duplicate your part of the conversation in comments on the original post, please let me know. I will use pseudonyms, it’s only about the conversation. Further, if you want “credit” for your contributions and thus want your real name used, or if you want to choose your own pseudonym, let me know.

    Important to ask questions the right way round, if you expect no response. 😉


    Evolution of Language, Culture, Technology, and Religion :


    Pete: “Ja het gelees. So wat dink JY moet ons iemand noem wat s daar is nie ‘n god (m.a.w. skepper/wetmaker) nie?”

    As jy geen negatiwiteit aan ‘n label heg nie, is enige label wat jy wil gebruik OK. As jy egter ‘n negatiewe label benodig, gebruik dan eerder “samaritaan”.

    Translation of Hugo:

    Pete: “So what do YOU think we should call someone that says there is no god (in other words no creator/law-maker)?”

    If you don’t attach any negativity to labels, any label you wish use is fine. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a negative label, rather use “Samaritan”.


    Vir iemand wat glo daar is geen reg en verkeerd nie, daar is geen betekenis in die lewe nie, is “nihilis” die regte woord, maar 99.9% van ateste is beslis nie nihiliste nie.

    Translation of Hugo:

    For someone that believes there is no right and wrong, that there is no meaning in life, “nihilist” would be the right word, but 99.9% of atheists are certainly not nihilists.

    (And 80% of stats are really made-up on the spot, but it’s the thought that counts?)


    and the post-modernist escapes again!! 🙂

    “evolve”, “mutasie” hmm…what ARE we talking about…
    om eerlik te wees sukkel ek om jou gedagtes van een sin na die volgende te volg. ek dink ons begrippe, — en begrippe oor begrippe — verskil effens.

    die rede hoekom ek die res van die gebooie ingebring het is nie om die glo in God kwessie in te bring nie, maar om te kyk hoe ver hierdie siening geldig kan wees in daardie bybelse konteks. ek weet dit was nie die punt nie, maar dit was ‘n interessante gedagte vir my in elk geval.

    ek stem saam dat ‘n atheis meer moreel kan lewe –volgens sy maatstaf– as byvoorbeeld ‘n Christen–en sy maatstaf. my vraag is of daardie vlak van naakte-moraliteit vir die atheis die gevoel van genoegheid bring –for lack of a better word– al dan nie..

    ek sou “ontwikkel” gebruik ipv “evolve”, maar ek vermoed jy hou van die latere 😉

    Translation of William:

    and the post-modernist escapes again!! 🙂

    “evolve”, “mutation”, hmm…what ARE we talking about…
    to be honest, I struggle to follow your thoughts from one sentence to the next. I think our concepts, — and our concepts about concepts — differ a bit.

    the reason why I brought in the rest of the commandments wasn’t to bring in the “belief in God” issue, but rather to see how far this perspective could be valid in that biblical context. I know it wasn’t the point, but it was anyway an interesting thought for me.

    I agree that an atheist could live more morally — according to his measure-of-it — than for example a Christian — and his measure-of-it. my question is whether that level of naked-morality could provide an atheist with a sense of “genoegheid”* — for lack of a better word — or not..

    I would use “develop” instead of “evolve”, but I suspect you like the latter 😉

    *At the time I wasn’t sure what “genoegheid” was supposed to mean, but now it’s obvious it means what could maybe be translated literally to “enough-ness”, aka fulfilling, fulfilment.


    Hmm, “post-modernism”… I’ve actually begun cringing at the word, for I’ve discovered how it is often used/abused. In most cases, what I tend to do is think about concepts words are used to refer to, and not stick with supposed “correct definitions” – I believe this works, because words are actually defined by how they are used in a language, not by the dictionary. The dictionary merely captures the typical uses? And so I drive people nuts, for that I can but apologise.

    > maar om te kyk hoe ver hierdie siening geldig kan wees in daardie bybelse konteks

    Cool! Good exercise, moenie dat ek jou ontmoedig nie. Ek kan net nie nou self ook daaraan deelneem nie.

    “Genoegdheid”? Ek weet nie, miskien omdat my Afrikaans nie goed genoeg is nie. 😉

    Most of that is English, last two paragraphs:

    Cool! Good exercise, don’t let me discourage you. I just can’t participate myself right now.

    “Genoegdheid”? I don’t know, maybe because my Afrikaans isn’t good enough. 😉


    waar. is ‘n woordeboek nie maar ‘n snapshot van die betekenis van ‘n woord soos gesien deur die meerderheid nie en dus is ‘n woordeboek maar net so goed soos sy datum en selfs dan is dit ‘n gemiddelde. maar dit is tog wat mens wil he, ‘n aanvaarde gemiddelde betekenis tot woord opsoekgids. maar ja woorde kan tricky raak sonder konteks. gesprekke, en omtrent alle dinge.

    nee, jy het nie. my lui natuur het my wel ontmoedig.

    nou verstaan ek jou nie agv konteks. ironies. “Ek weet nie” – weet nie wat nie? hoekom nie? verstaan jy my punt en weet nie? verstaan jy nie my punt nie? of is dit net die spesifieke woord?

    my punt was dat ek wonder hoe vervullend of omvattend self “geinspireerde” morele kodes vergelyk met die wat mens in ‘n religieuse (ek HAAT daardie woord!! >.< ) teks sou vind. vanuit 'n Christelike oogpunt natuurlik nie, maar wat is die athiest se oppinie? ;)

    Translation of William:

    true. isn’t a dictionary but a snapshot of the meaning of a word as seen by a majority, making a dictionary but as good as its date, and even then it’s just an average. but that is after all what we want, an acceptable average meaning for a word-lookup-guide. but yes, words can become tricky without context. conversations, and just about all things.

    no, you didn’t. my lazy nature did discourage me though.

    now I don’t understand you as a result of context. ironic. “I don’t know” – don’t know what? why not? do you understand my point and don’t know? or do you not understand my point? or is it just the specific word?

    my point was that I wonder how fulfilling or complete self “inspired” moral codes compare with those that you find in a religious (I HATE that word!! >.< ) text. from a Christian perspective of course not, but what is the atheist's opinion? ;)

    Phew, that was long. I have some potential commentary in mind, and also feel like taking up the conversation again, at least for another comment or two. (In particular discussing fulfilment found or not found in moral codes, which could become a blog post in itself, and what William understands under “evolution” and why he doesn’t like the use of the word. Maybe also what he understands under “religion”, a word that Shofar teaches dislike for, and something that feels like it might be a trend sparked by the hijack of Bonhoeffer’s ideas or language?

    See Peter Rollins’ blog for what I’ve come across about Bonhoeffer:
    Toward Religionless Christianity and Religion, Fundamentalism and Christianity – excellent posts, methinks, for those interested in this sort of thing.

    So, any “real” atheists here want to wager an answer as to whether their “internal” sense of morality can feel as fulfilling as religious “external” morality, before I throw in my own two cents on the topic?

  • 9 Ben-Jammin' // Sep 9, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    So, any real atheists here want to wager an answer as to whether their internal sense of morality can feel as fulfilling as religious external morality, before I throw in my own two cents on the topic?

    I can’t see an ‘external’ morality as a morality; it would be an arbitrary set of rules to me.

    See my comment 10 here.

    If I’m completely mis-understanding what is meant by ‘internal’ vs ‘external’ morality, please explain.

  • 10 Hugo // Sep 9, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    *grin* @Ben. I’ll invite them here, and I’ll share your comment there (Facebook), but dunno if they’ll come. Here’s my contribution:

    “External” morality: some Christians believe right and wrong is defined for them, they just need to obey. A church that caters to that kind will provide them with the answers to right and wrong. Authoritarian, yes. Lack of freedom? Actually no, there’s a significant nuance. In a sense, it provides a freedom the “internal-morality-bunch” lack: a kind of freedom from responsibility/choice. The decisions are easier to make, because it doesn’t come down to your own efforts to be as good as you can or to figure out what the right thing is to do. Internal morality is a challenge in that sense, and it isn’t always clear.

    Some are fine with it, if they’re used to it, but in my experience from talking to people, it seems converting from an “external morality” to an “internal morality” can be rather challenging, and a rather rough ride. There is certainly a kind of “fulfilment” that is found in simply having to obey.

    I’m busy reading some Paul Kurtz, a book given to me by a friend. Paul Kurtz is considered by some to be “the father of secular humanism”. He suggests Christian morality (as it is practised in many instances) is a “slave morality”, while a secular humanist morality would be a “master morality”: in the sense that a “good slave” need only obey, while a “good master” needs to take initiative and analyse his or her own choices.

    So my answer, in short, is that there’s a kind of “fulfilment” that can be found in an authoritarian morality (slave-based) that you’d find lacking in an “internal” morality, if that kind of thing appeals to you.

    My pastor (@SG) pointed me at Erich Fromm, a psychologist famous for his book “Fear of Freedom” aka “Escape from Freedom”. It’s on my to-read wishlist. As I understand it, he suggests man (humans) have a certain fear of freedom, and often desire and seek ways to escape it. Freedom from freedom (my words) provides another kind of freedom. How much it resonates with what I’ve come across with regards to master/slave kink is kinda intriguing. 😉 (An idea I also got from my pastor, who recommended another interesting book whose title suggests an exploration of some of the connections between religion and… um… eroticism? I can’t remember the title right now. Please use a more academic meaning-for/attitude-towards these words than is typical, thanks.)

    Does this answer any questions? (@William, as well as @Ben.)

    Aaah! The bastard! I don’t like Fromm anymore. He stole my idea! (Decades before I was born, no fair!) Hehe. I’ve been meaning to write a piece on Adam and Eve in the context of evolution, but I see most of what I’m interested in pondering already described in Erich Fromm # Psychological theory on Wikipedia. Worth a read. That section also mentions the sado-masochism, the warped misconception of “love” that Fromm suggested is found in authoritarian religions. (The masochist (mis)takes the punishment for doing wrong as a sign that they are loved.)

  • 11 Ben-Jammin' // Sep 10, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    I thought the I, Robot movie did a great job with the theme of moving from an authoritarian morality to a values-based morality. At least that was a theme I saw in it. Sonny was Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount to the other robots, urging them to leave the rules-based morality of the 3 laws and utilize empathy-based morality.

  • 12 Hugo // Sep 10, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    It’s rather funny, yea, my understanding of Jesus’ teachings is that it’s about moving to an internal morality. If you have an internal morality, whether there is an external “enforcer” (condemning to hell or allowing into heaven in an afterlife, for example) becomes a rather moot point. So any “deconversion” process should, in my books, really not have that much impact?

    Except, from what I see, it does? Some of the posts I’ve seen on the de-conversion blog talk about a recalibration upon deconversion… I suppose that’s pretty normal and somewhat independent of “being good” (in the internal empathy-based morality sense).

    Then there’s been a commenter on this blog that deconverted and reconverted, having taken a bad nihilistic immoral approach to the deconverted life. Lack of a good internal morality, requiring an external enforcer (belief in an external enforcer)? It happens.

    If you listen to religious people talk about “without God, there’s no reason to be good”, you see an underlying “internal nihilism”. That’s damn scary, if those people lose their religion… That’s why I consider that kind of religion actively dangerous. My idea of “good religion”, or more clearly then, “religionless Christianity”, is one where the “Christian” develops to the point of having a good internal morality, as I believe was taught by Jesus, that it really makes *absolutely no difference* if they were to come to a 100%-firm-belief that there is no hell or afterlife.

    Real morality, to me, is something that doesn’t depend on an afterlife. Anything that depends on an afterlife reward-or-punishment is certainly “religion”, and here I mean the negative-connotation “we dislike the religion word” kind of “religion”, not the “compassion is my religion” or “Google culture as a religion” kind of soft-definition I usually prefer to use. Hell-fire-and-brimstone style Christianity is something that makes me cringe, and usually evokes the use of the “fundamentalist” label from me.

    Get to a point where you don’t care or don’t know if there’s an afterlife, and be a moral person in any case, then I consider you a “good Christian” in the values sense. (Positive version of the religion.)

    My pastor? I once asked him if he believes in an afterlife. He said “I dunno, we don’t have evidence either way”. “Now you sound like a scientist!” I joked. That’s the kind of Christianity that Jesus was all about, focusing more on “letting the Kingdom come, on earth” than obsessing about any supposed afterlife.

  • 13 Ben-Jammin' // Sep 15, 2008 at 1:57 am

    Another long and interesting post on internal vs. authoritarian morality:

    I think I have to get that book.

  • 14 Hugo // Sep 16, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    I see the internal-vs-external thing at work in work environments. E.g. where I currently work, they give lots of freedom, so you “police” yourself. Your responsibility, your work ethic. You get better employees that way, if they can work in that manner. Those that can’t, well, you don’t even want to hire them.

    The same happens in the Open Source world in a way: there’s a big dislike of money… if a couple of guys get paid by Debian to work on Debian, the rest get upset and demotivated. Because no-one gets paid, everyone is helping because that’s what you do. I’ve seen a discussion like this about resources like parking spots: keep it free, then people realise it is a privilege and they hand it over when they no longer need it. Add a price tag, then they can do a cost-benefit analysis, and decide they’re prepared to pay for the convenience, even if they don’t use it very often.

    For that kind of external-morality to be successful then, scarce resources’ prices become absurdly high. Is this why you get such an inflation on the punishment for bad behaviour among the external-morality bunch? Threats of hell becoming ever more terrible, in order to force them to stay in line, seeing as hell isn’t exactly a *tangible* balance? Not a good base for morality.

    Gah, must make more time for blogging. My queue is getting long enough that I will start forgetting what I wanted to write about.

  • 15 Hugo // Sep 17, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    An interesting read. (I finally read that Blog Around the Clock post.) On the one hand, I’d say the guy’s a little too strongly liberal and too anti conservative. On the other hand, I think his mindset is too “conservative” in the sense that he still divides it into a nice bipolar situation. Isn’t that what conservatives supposedly do? I want to break down that bipolarity and replace it with a continuum! 😉

  • 16 Ben-Jammin' // Sep 24, 2008 at 7:51 am

    So….any responses? It’s too quiet around here…

  • 17 Hugo // Sep 24, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    That’d be my fault for not blogging lately. I’m getting it under control… I should have something out before Sunday.

  • 18 Von Prosak // Jun 3, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Hi there, just found this website from digg. This isn’t not an article I would regularly read, but I liked your spin on it. Thank you for creating an article worth reading!

  • 19 Hugo // Jun 3, 2011 at 10:02 am

    My conclusion: that’s a spam comment.

    Via digg? Seriously? How? … Generic comment, nothing suggesting it’s actually by a human that read this post.

  • 20 Thomas // Jun 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I feel I finally have my sense of irritation under control to the extent that I can comment on this post. It’s been two/three years, so you may have become aware of some of the problems with this stance. My reply cannot, of course, take this into account. So, here goes…

    If you conclude the idea is enigmatic, yes, that’s the whole point. Let it be an enigmatic idea that represents our enigmatic and hard to pin-down idea of what it means to live a good life. One reader concluded his concept of his God, working with these definitions, must be found in his sense of empathy and compassion.

    The real trouble is that you can conclude nothing. Unless the words “meaning”, “God” and “good life” have substantive referents – and there is every reason to believe that these referents will be different for different people – the commandments can be summed up as “blah”. (“That about which you cannot speak, about that you must be silent”.) At best you can say that everyone obeys them with respect to their own idea of “God” – which isn’t saying much, but probably still wouldn’t be true according to orthodox Christian anthropological doctrine (presuppositionalists would vehemently deny it).

    A certain kind of “atheist” believes the idea of “God” presented by the Bible is a human creation, a development of human culture. As such, they effectively believe this idea is a “graven image”. Fundamentalists that believe in literal Biblical infallibility, for example, are actually idolising the Bible. A Greek Orthodox friend of mine recently told me that in their tradition, the Bible is not the Truth, the Bible is about the Truth, a very important distinction.

    Your remarks on the atheist underscore the point that there are real philosophical differences in the concept of “God” you outline above. The commonly-used semantics are therefore useful in discussion in a way which your use of the term “God” is not. BTW, it is curious to me that such an atheist would see developments of human culture as less “divine” than anything else, since they are just as “natural” as anything else – an inevitable product of the order of things. Again, the real distinction lies simply in the fact that the atheist thinks the content false.

    You have either missed or obscured the point of the Greek Orthodox. They mostly do believe in “literal Biblical infallibility”, which is not the same thing as “inerrancy” (which they might, BTW, also believe in). I suspect your friend was making a point rather similar to mine – that the propositions of the text can be interpreted any which way, thus becoming meaningless, when something does not lend substance to the terms. For this purpose, the Eastern Orthodox summon “Tradition” as an extra ultimate source of authority, something which Protestants reject.

    An atheist is so faithfully avoiding the worship of what he or she believes are false gods, that he or she is prepared to walk a path of social/cultural persecution for it. For their faithfulness, they are persecuted.

    After all, the early Christians were atheists as well.

    The word “atheist” as applied by the Greeks and Romans to Christians is probably better translated as “Godless” and is not far in meaning from “irreverent”. I don’t see the point in bringing this up.

    Your comment about “faithful” atheists makes assumptions about motives that you have no good grounds for making, and they fly in the face of orthodox (small “o”) Christian anthropology.

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